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Stopping Them From ‘Tuning Out Israel’

Showing Their Support: Marchers carry the Israel flag during New York?s annual Salute to Israel parade. Image by getty images

Just about wherever I go these days, or so it seems, I encounter 20-somethings who have tuned out of Israel. I know that there’s a difference between anecdotes and evidence, but when a series of uninvited anecdotes all point in the same direction — well, that’s a lot of smoke, and it makes sense to look for the fire.

What, exactly, does “tuning out of Israel” mean? It means a willful deafness to news out of Israel, to debate about Israel, to appeals for expressions of kinship with Israelis, a deafness that may grow out of tedium or out of alienation or out of social pressure, but that soon enough comes to feel entirely natural. The decision to tune out is not one repeated every morning; it tends to trickle in and, once in, just hangs around, as if there’s been a small stroke in that portion of the brain where the Zionist impulse normally resides.

I know there’s a basketful of evidence that many young American Jews already actually, or at least potentially, feel connected to Israel. I know there’s a long waiting list for Birthright, and at least some evidence that a Birthright experience makes a powerful difference in the alumni’s Israel-anschauung. Several weeks ago, I attended a concert by the popular Israeli hip-hop funk rock band Hadag Nachash, the first of two sets that were both oversold, that both attracted audiences that went more than slightly wild. (Don’t ask.) I’d have loved to survey the audience, but they were too busy dancing or waving their bodies and the music was megatimes too loud for conversation, so I have no idea how, if at all, they relate to Israel. Nor have I any idea beyond an educated guess as to how many connected young Jews there are as contrasted with the numbers of the indifferent. But I am quite certain that the indifferent are more than an anomalous exception to an otherwise pervasive rule. My certainty derives not only from my own encounters with such people, but also from dozens of conversations with rabbis and other Jewish professionals who report a similar perception.

Israel is altogether too central an element in the Jewish experience for it to be relegated to the cutting room floor. While Israel is not the whole of the Jewish experience, its omission distorts, misrepresents that experience. Even those among the disaffected and indifferent who invest real passion in being and doing Jewish — they study Yiddish, they learn Torah, they explore spiritual connections, they find multiple points of access, some novel, some traditional — even they, some of whom I have come to know and cherish — are, as I see it, deprived. Israel is, of course, also deprived by their absence.

But accusations of betrayal or demands that they rally ’round the flag are useless as antidotes. A more nuanced presentation of Israel, one that bears at least some correspondence to the complexity of the place, that does not require that they suspend disbelief or that they sign up for a life membership in AIPAC, that goes beyond press releases so drenched in sugary syrup as to be indigestible, may help. The availability of a credible liberal Zionism, rooted in the humane tradition that used to characterize the Zionist mainstream, that stands in opposition to the distorted Zionist pretensions of Israel’s extreme right-wing, may help.

Yet I am not at all certain that politics is at the heart of the problem. It may just be the evident endlessness of the conflict and its fundamental tedium. It may be that everything that might be said about the conflict has already been said, and said again. And it may be generational: For one generation — my own — Israel touches on the miraculous. For another — the folks I’ve here been writing about — Israel is, to put it bluntly, a headache.

Headaches are not fatal. There are ways of re-presenting Israel, both the honey and the thorn that, though they may not eradicate the ache, can render it tolerable.

Contact Leonard Fein at [email protected]

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